Since he was born Meas Sokeo, as his parents did, hid his ethnicity and religion. Why? In Cambodia, a country where basic qualification for citizenship is claiming pure Khmer and 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, Meas is considered an ethnic minority, because he is Cham and Muslim.
In 2001 Sokeo attended the local university at 18. No longer able to tolerate the hurtful statements by teachers and students he began to speak his truth. Becoming more aware of the power of prejudice and discrimination, he quit his job with a private company, and became a volunteer for Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT) working on the volatile issue of ethnic nationalism in Cambodia.
In 2003 AFSC and ACT sat down to brainstorm on what we could do to bring a greater understanding of the issues of ethnicity nationalism that has regularly broken out into violence amongst Cambodians and their neighbors. AFSC and ACT started quiet conversations with Cambodians who had training in peace building and had them apply their knowledge of conflict cycles and reconciliation to this issue. We designed a research project that would involve all the peace organizations that had been a part of the conversations and AFSC provided the seed money for ACT to hire two staff members. Sokeo was hired as the junior staff, but quickly became the main organizer behind the research.
In these early years, AFSC advised, planned workshops with ACT , provided training opportunities for Sokeo, and exposed him to what others were doing on this issue. Sokeo coordinated a research effort that revealed new information showing Cambodians’ had mixed feelings about ethnicity and nationality. On one hand they wanted to be a modern, forward looking nation where all people would be accepted and allowed to practice their religion and culture; on the other hand, they expressed strong negative stereotypes of ethnic minorities.
Now, Sokeo is the director of ACT – heading the organization he once volunteered for. He continues to be a leader by rallying staff from other organizations, piloting training programs and curriculum on multi-ethnic identity with the Ministry of Education in Cambodia, and setting up his own volunteer program with Muslim youth to help them explore and embrace their identity. Our investment of time and money is paying dividends to the entire country.